Harvard-bound transgender valedictorian says the tragic death of his best friend inspired him to ‘be happy’
An 18-year-old transgender man who will graduate the top of his class this year before attending Harvard University has attributed his community service and hard work to the tragic death of his friend in 2018.
Syd Sanders — who believes he is the first out trans valedictorian in Maine, if not in the entire US — has been described as “extraordinary” by his teachers.
He will graduate from Belfast Area High having been elected class president for both his junior and senior years, as well as being a member of the school’s gay/straight/transgender alliance for all four years.
Sanders was also selected to be the school’s representative to Boys State – an American legion programme for male high schools juniors to learn about local government campaigning where he was voted senator.
In an interview with Bangor Daily News, Sanders said that while coming out as transgender was “rough” and “confusing”, he emerged from a period of unhappiness after his close friend died in a tragic accident.
“She was such a radiant, wonderful person,” he said.
She was my inspiration — she had so many interests, so many dreams and goals. She loved everyone so much
Laila Al-Matrouk, his classmate and friend, died in August 2018 in a cycling accident.
Sanders was about to enter his junior year when she passed, and was struggling with sadness and anger at the time – but Laila’s death marked a watershed moment.
“When she died, it really hit me — I want to be like her. I’m tired of living life being depressed at home. She’s the one who inspired me,” he said.
Sanders began doing community service, becoming a passionate advocate for things he cared about and working to make good choices.
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“I got happy,” he said.
Syd Sanders continues to look for the positives as he misses out on graduation.
The first thing he did was move out of his main family home and into the garage, getting a series of minimum-wage jobs to support himself.
While this wasn’t something his parents asked him to do, Sanders said he needed to do it for himself.
“My relationship with my family after I moved out has gotten so much better,” he said. “We’re friends now.”
Sanders added that graduating during coronavirus is “anticlimactic” and “a very lonely way to graduate”, but that he is trying to find some good from the pandemic year of 2020, which will mark him and every one of his peers.
“On the positive side, I really feel that this is bringing my generation together,” Sanders said.
“I’m trying to think of this as a way we can find some solidarity and come together in the future.”